“Where has Will Smith been?”
Despite a four-year absence from film that has ended with the recent release of “Men in Black III,” it’s a question no one has been asking. Smith is clearly a movie star; the box-office numbers prove it. Everyone likes him. People go see his movies. But he inspires no rabid devotion in his fans, and when he does go four years without making a film, no one seems to notice. No one bemoans the absence of Will Smith.
Likewise, no one was clamoring for a third “Men in Black,” especially after the poor box-office performance of “Men in Black II” (what an absurd age we live in when a $252 million box-office gross can be considered “poor”). It has been ten years since the last installment, and although Tommy Lee Jones looks as if he had to have formaldehyde removed from his bloodstream to play this part, Smith does not appear to have aged a day. In many ways, his return to film mirrors the franchise’s return: no one was asking for it, but we should all be damn glad it happened.
Smith has made a dozen successful films, but “Men in Black” has always been the franchise that most suited his talents. As the breezily irreverent Agent J, he glides through tense situations and action sequences with humor, confidence, and athleticism. “Men in Black III” finds him doing what he does best: killing aliens, protecting the Earth, and, of course, erasing the memories of human bystanders who witness the MIB in action. The twist this time comes when an alien named Boris (Jemaine Clement, from Flight of the Conchords, whose memorably simian face is wasted behind layers of alien make-up) time travels back to 1969 to kill a young Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). J wakes up one morning in an alternate reality in which his partner K died as a young agent, so he time-jumps back to 1969 to save him and kill Boris. Oh, and he is supposed to save the world by putting some kind of exploding force field device on the Apollo 11 shuttle.
Each “Men in Black” film has a MacGuffin of this type, and I’ll be damned if I can remember any of them. But it doesn’t matter much. “Men in Black” has always coasted on the charisma and chemistry of its stars, humor, and special effects. But this latest and, dare I say, best installment brings something new to the table: a much bigger and more prominent heart.
Josh Brolin plays Agent K in 1969, and he makes the most of his screen time, mimicking Tommy Lee Jones’s Texas twang and standoffish disposition. But the script gives him much more to do than impersonate. Besides the standard save-the-world MacGuffin that we have come to expect from the franchise, the filmmakers sneak in a powerful dramatic sub-plot concerning K’s character. We see a significant difference between Agent K in 1969 and in modern day. Modern-day K is gruff and unemotional. Young K is friendly and even romantic. Our emotional involvement hinges on the answer to a question asked several times in the film: what happened to young K to turn him into the emotionally-distant shadow of a human being that we know? This mystery is resolved in the film’s final, tender moments, as we learn more about both characters than we ever expected to.
The time-travel idea was a bit of a masterstroke, as it gets Tommy Lee Jones, who may be getting too old to do action sequences, out of the picture and makes way for new blood. The ease with which this is accomplished at a story level is reflective of the overall excellent work by screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”), a newcomer to the franchise. Cohen has crafted a tight, emotional story that both revives and deconstructs all of the elements we expect in a MIB movie.
In particular, series newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man,” “Hugo”) gives an impressive supporting performance as Griffin, an alien who can see the future and becomes almost a third member of the MIB team. Griffin is written as sort of a wise sage, but Stuhlbarg gives him a sweet, helpless quality that does not serve comedy or action but instead makes a beeline for our hearts. We have always liked and cared about the characters in these films, but finally, in this last installment, we learn who they really are. It is a bold and wise choice for a franchise that could easily have coasted on its formula.
And lest we forget the film’s real star, it is good to see Will Smith back in form. Although he doesn’t do anything new, he carries the movie with grace and humor, as he has always done. Because that’s what movie stars do. Let me say that again: Will Smith is a movie star, a particular type of performer that is becoming obsolete. In our society, we have celebrities galore, and it doesn’t take much to earn that particular status. But the genuine movie stars – the ones that can anchor a comedy, drama, or thriller – are few and far between. Today’s upcoming movie stars – like Jennifer Lawrence or Channing Tatum – have talent in spades, but they are somehow smaller than people like Will Smith, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts. Maybe I am just getting old, but it seems to me that Will Smith might be remembered as one of the last true movie stars, whose charisma is built for the big screen, not just manufactured by a publicist.
And, really, that is the charm of “Men in Black III.” It is a movie that nobody asked for, but when you see it, you’ll be reminded of something you have been missing. And that’s really all a good summer movie is supposed to do.
My Rating: See it in the Theater